DOGUBEYAZIT, Turkey — Roped together, the five climbers inched slowly across Mt. Ararat's summit snowcap.
To the east they could look across the border into the Soviet Union and Iran. To the west the 16,945-foot volcano cast a massive, dark shadow in the early morning sun.
The hikers--two Americans, a Norwegian, a German and their Kurdish guide--were breathing hard in the thin air and moving at a crawl. But when they made it to the summit, marked by a metal stake and a raggedy flag, they did what successful peak-baggers do everywhere: laughed, shook hands, slapped each other on the back and took snapshots.
Most Americans have heard of Turkey's Mt. Ararat--Agri Dagi or Buyuk Agri in Turkish. It's where Noah's Ark came to rest after the Great Flood, the Bible says. Because of that, the mountain regularly draws religious pilgrims who are content with a glimpse of it from the valley below.
But it is also one of the world's great walk-ups: what mountaineers call a peak that takes a minimum of special gear or climbing skills to get to the top.
It's similar, say, to Japan's Mt. Fujiyama (12,388 feet) or Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet). Strong legs, strong lungs and warm clothes will help get you to their summits, too.
Ararat's setting is dramatic. Its twin volcanic cones rise from a dry, dusty plain in a rough-and-tumble corner of the world that's still struggling its way into the 20th Century. The mountain last erupted in 1840, devastating the villages around it.
There's also an aura of danger and mystery surrounding the peak. Mountain guides carry shotguns to ward off vicious sheep dogs and bandits; a group of German climbers was once ambushed, robbed and suffered the indignity of returning to Dogubeyazit on foot, in their underwear.
Even for non-believers the Noah's Ark business is a tantalizing question mark, too. The Bible says the ark came to rest "upon the mountains of Ar'arat," so some scholars say that if it happened, it could be anywhere in the region, not just on the mountain itself.
A British writer, C. P. Lister, says searching for the ark on Ararat is "a misreading of the situation.
"The name of Ararat is preserved in the isolated peak which rises to 16,945 feet south of the Araxes; the mountains of Urartu that Noah knew were much more extensive, a great deal lower and probably some distance away, in another part of the kingdom," Lister concludes.
Despite, or perhaps because of the mountain's notoriety, some U.S. adventure travel companies have added Ararat climbs to their catalogues and that's one option: Pay $100 or so a day and let someone else sweat the details.
But when a friend and I decided to go to Ararat, we wanted to make all the arrangements on our own, from getting permission from the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., to hiring a guide in Dogubeyazit, the busy trading town that serves as the jumping-off point for summit climbs.
Turkish authorities require climbers, whatever their skills or experiences, to go with a guide because the mountain is so close to the Soviet Union and Iran borders.
Can you do it on your own, without paying a middleman to take care of the details? The best answer is yes, but be prepared for delays and frustrations. You'll spend less, though it may take you longer to run the bureaucratic gantlet. But it is possible.
The problem is that the region is home to the Kurds, a seminomadic people who have a long history of sometimes-violent resistance to the Turkish government. Some of them would like to see an independent nation, Kurdistan, and government efforts to hunt down the rebels take precedence over climbers' interest in Ararat.
The local French-speaking security chief explained the situation and then, in case of any misunderstanding, smiled and put his hands together as if they were handcuffed to demonstrate what would happen to people who ventured into the closed area.
Finally, 25 days after arriving at the mountain and after leaving and returning three times, Ararat's weather reopened and we started for the top, a three-day walk.
The climb began with a truck ride on a dirt road, past rough villages to the 7,200-foot level, where we put most of the gear on horses. Ahmet, a friendly, quiet man who speaks some English, has been to Ararat's summit more than 50 times. In one hand he carried an ice ax, in the other a shotgun.
A seven-hour walk took us to 11,200 feet, where we pitched tents and cooked some pasta. The second day was shorter, a four-hour scramble over loose rock to 13,900 feet. The camp was a tiny outcrop, with just enough room for the tents and horses. It was as far as the animals would go.
That night we watched the sky for signs of bad weather and went to bed early. The wind was cold, but the sky remained clear and the stars brilliant. About 3 a.m. we got up, brewed a quick cup of coffee on a backpack stove and headed for the top, using flashlights until the glow in the east was bright enough to see by.